Using and Teaching FRQs in Science

Students in an AP® Environmental Science class need to know how to write Free Response Questions (FRQs). These are short answer questions, not essays, and have special strategies that are different than other AP® subjects. Each FRQ is graded out of 10 point and there are 3 of them on the AP® Exam.  This post will go over how to teach FRQs and how to choose FRQs to use on exams.

Reminder! Content (Essential Knowledge) is assessed through the Science Practices.

(Updated in 2019 to reflect the new APES exam)

Teaching kids how to write FRQs

I teach kids how to write Free Response Questions (FRQs) as they are taking exams. For example, the first exam covers chapters 1 and 2 of my textbook and the FRQ I developed for that exam has a lot of explanation about how to write the answers. I’m not giving them the answers, but telling them how to write it.  I give instructions like this:

“Intro to APES FRQ (Chapters 1 and 2)
Your AP® Exam in May will have 3 FRQs, each with multiple parts. It will be read and graded by High School and college teachers. They don’t know you and how smart you are—you must prove it to them.

Directions for students:
Answer each part of the question in complete sentences.
 Be specific (don’t give vague, general answers)
 Give Examples
 Prove you know and understand the material to the reader.
 DO NOT spend your time with an opening sentence and/or conclusion.
 DO NOT waste your time with flowery sentences—get to the point with good solid science.”

Before the kids start writing, we read and discuss each bullet point. I then go over the different types of terms they will see. There are different strategies for each type of question.

What do the terms mean?

FRQ Task Verbs 

Identify, Provide or List: Simple answer with a complete sentence.

Describe:  Needs additional information beyond a simple answer. 1-2 complex sentences.

Justify: Provide evidence to support, qualify, or defend a claim and/or provide reasoning to explain HOW that evidence supports the claim.

Make a Claim: Make an assertion based on evidence or knowledge.

Calculate: A math problem to solve. Show set-up and answer WITH UNITS.  (Does not need complete sentence)

Explain: HOW or WHY something occurs. 

  • Use evidence and/or reasoning.
  • Sometimes, it is a process requiring steps in order.
  • Use “because” for “why” questions.

FRQs as Teaching Tools

I consider exams not only assessment, but also teaching tools.  I continue to remind and teach students these terms throughout the year as well as nuances in how to answer different questions.  For example, if I give an economic question, I tell the kids to include the word “money” or “jobs” in their answer as that’s what’s looked for by the AP® readers.

Writing Tips

Students are required to answer 3 FRQs in 80 min.

  • FRQ #1 is a “Design an Investigation” question and will have other questions to assess student skills based on science practices 1, 5, 4, and 7.
  • FRQ #2 asks students to provide a solution to an authentic environmental scenario. It will also assess other skills based on science practices 1, 2, 5 or 7.
  • FRQ #3 asks students to analyze a problem and solution and use math with practices 1, 6 and 7.
  • Students should label each answer with their appropriate letter.  a)  b)i  etc.  They should NOT write one giant paragraph as it annoys the grader. (No points taken off, but it makes it harder to grade)
  • If the question asks for a specific number of answers, they should only write that number.  Ex:  Describe 2 benefits of electric cars. Kids should limit to two different and unique benefits. If they write a third, or fourth….its not graded.  If one of the first two is wrong, and their second and third are correct, the student still only receives 1 out of 2 points.  This is DIFFERENT than some AP® History courses in which the grader will read and read and try to find points.  Make sure you make this distinction for the kids.

How to choose FRQs for an Exam

There are many ways to assign FRQs and your method will depend on what works for your particular students.  Depending on their writing level, age of your students, and how many AP® kids you have, you will need to decide how many to FRQs to have them practice with.  I assign one FRQ per exam of two chapters.

An FRQs can be a released FRQ from a previous year’s AP® Exam.  You can find previously released FRQs here on the college board website.  Be aware that the kids also have access to this website and some diligent students will study the questions and answers ahead of time to get an edge.

This FRQ is one taken directly from a released AP® exam. I use the snip feature on the computer and paste onto a template with lines. I make sure to eliminate the year which helps prevent cheating.

Combo FRQs are where you cut and paste together bits from different released FRQs.  This is beneficial at the beginning of the year when most released FRQs have topics from many parts of the curriculum and you haven’t covered much yet.  Its also harder for students to gain an edge if they do study the CB website with released FRQs.

This is an FRQ from an ecology exam (chapters 3 and 4). I merged two different released FRQs together, because the kids hadn’t studied the other concepts yet that were on the original FRQs.

You can create your own FRQ. I did not get good at making my own for at least 5 years after teaching this class and after I was an AP® reader. It takes that long to really understand how FRQs are written and you can better anticipate how easy or hard a particular question will be and common misconceptions. I don’t recommend this method for newbies. Using a combo FRQ or a released FRQ is usually better.

This is an FRQ I wrote about drought.

Since I teach multiple sections of APES, I prepare 2-3 different FRQs and each period will have a different FRQ. On occasion, I’ve assigned different kids in the same class different FRQs.  This prevents copying in tight quarters. I try to make sure the FRQs are the same in terms of how hard they are. If one FRQ scores lower on average, I will bump the grades for those kids to be fair.

Grading FRQs

When I grade an FRQ, it is worth 50 points. Below is how I curve the FRQ. On the real AP® exam, students need to score an average of about 4-5 points per FRQ to pass the exam (along with a minimum score on the Multiple Choice).

10 max points

When we peer grade FRQs, I adjust the curve a little and tell the kids that I don’t want them to argue 1 point (out of 10) of a mistake that they think the peer grader made, because I factored in one point on the curve. They can argue 2 or more points if they can prove they should get the point. This is to save my sanity with over 150 kids in AP.  Here’s the peer-graded curve.

Read about peer-grading using Google Forms written by Katy Sturges.